One COVID-19 year later, and I am saluting the leadership of women everywhere

With women leaders in Papua New Guinea. Credit: UN Photo.Andrew Hau

About this time last year, I was sitting cross-legged in a field of grass. I was listening to women share the ways they are changing the leadership landscape in Papua New Guinea.

As part of the Spotlight Initiative and to mark International Women’s Day, I had travelled with the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima and the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, to the southwestern Pacific to stand in solidarity with women in this region. Women who are facing immense inequalities, some of the highest rates of violence in the world and the lowest levels of representation in governments.

A march for equality in solidarity with women in Papua New Guinea, joined by Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Jayathma Wickramanayake, SG’s Envoy on Youth. Credit: UN Photo/Andrew Hau

Little did we know that the inequalities all women face would deepen the world over, with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

A few days later, I was back in New York — the United Nation’s host city was going into lockdown, and the World Health Organization had categorized COVID-19 as a global pandemic.

Our lives have not been the same since.

With United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Heads of State Financing For Development in the Era of COVID-19 Meeting. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Our work at the United Nations has continued at an accelerated pace to respond to the triple emergencies of health, humanitarian and for the first time, development.

More than 2.6 million lives lost. More than a billion students out of school, hundreds of millions without work, COVID-19 exacerbated weaknesses in our systems — highlighting stark inequalities within communities and between regions.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for unity, equity and action for people and the planet. And with the Sustainable Development Goals as our North Star, the UN has responded. We worked quickly to understand the science and data to formulate policies that are helping to bring people together in solidarity and take to scale the solutions countries and communities need to outpace the pandemic for an inclusive, just and sustainable recovery.

At the UN SG’s Virtual Townhall with Women’s Civil Society in Light of COVID-19. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Women have been among the most affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.

Women are more likely than men to own micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises and vulnerable businesses in the informal sector. They are also over-represented in the sectors most affected by lockdowns — services, hospitality, tourism, and the earliest and highest unemployment rates. Women are far more likely to shoulder the burden of unpaid work. And they are less likely to have access to assets, property and financial services.

Particularly concerning is the trend towards lower female participation in the workforce. Women made up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of all job losses.

And in this lock down period — the incredible increase in all forms from domestic violence, sexual abuse, trafficking, online harassment, and femicide has been horrifying.

The increase in child marriages alone threatens to set us back decades and lose millions of girls’ opportunities for education.

The UN Secretary-General put the world on high alert. He calling to end the shadow pandemic of violence against women, advance women’s equal participation in decision-making and to ensure focused support to women in COVID-19 response packages.

First virtual gathering of Women Rise for All

At the same time, we have seen amazing heroism. We started Women Rise for All in the middle of a pandemic, to highlight the impact of women leaders in all sectors, in all parts of the world. Women make up 70% of frontline health workers. Women have been at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs for COVID-19 vaccines. Women peacebuilders have leveraged the trust they have in conflict-affected communities to share public health messaging. Women are leading financial institutions responsible for policies for an inclusive and sustainable recovery.

The world is waking up to the effectiveness of women’s leadership in a crisis. Countries headed by women have been exponentially more successful in managing the pandemic and ensuring a solid foundation for economic recovery.

One COVID-19 year later, and I am saluting the leadership of women everywhere.

When women are equally represented in all sectors, at all levels, and wherever decisions are made, humanity benefits.

We have seen this demonstrated time and again — when women are at the table, peace agreements are more sustainable, climate agreements more likely to be concluded, and governments invest more in social protection and development that benefits all and addresses inequalities.

The Secretary-General has set out five key building blocks for women’s leadership:

1. Realize women’s equal rights fully, through the repeal of discriminatory laws and the enacting of positive measures.

2. Ensure equal representation– from company boards to parliaments, from higher education to public institutions — through special measures and quotas.

3. Focus on women’s economic inclusion through targeted credit and investments, protection of jobs in the formal and informal sectors, equal pay, and significant investments in the care economy and social protection.

4. Each country should enact an emergency response plan to address violence against women and girls as a priority and follow through with funding, policies, and political will to end this scourge.

5. Give space to the intergenerational transition underway — from the frontlines to online, young women are advocating for a more just and equal world. All that is needed is for those with power to heed their vision.

On this last point, I look to leaders like Alaa Salah, who advocated for greater democracy, peace and stability for all in Sudan. The young women leaders on the front lines for democracy in Myanmar. Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakategre on climate action. Movements of young women on the frontlines from Argentina to Lebanon, France to Bangkok. The amazing women peacekeepers that I met while traveling in Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, and those being trained for deployment through a new initiative by the UAE, all of whom are helping to protect communities in the most difficult contexts. These women are truly among our most courageous. These are the leaders that can re-imagine our future and shape our recovery.

Taking all COVID-19 precautions, enjoying the cherry blossoms on the grounds of the United Nations.


Even as we race to respond and recover, we recognize the significance of the past year. We’ve reflected and are acting on racial justice. Countries, business and communities are joining the movement for climate action and the race to zero carbon emissions. We have become more forthcoming about mental health without stigma. And with so many students out of school, we need education solutions to bridge a new digital divide faced by families.

Often this past year, I’ve been asked what keeps me going.

As the lines between work, school and home continue to blur, I’ve called on my family, friends, and my faith to keep me centred. The mission of the UN and the people we serve keep me inspired. I replenish my energy with nature and some days with chocolate.

I find it heartening that multitasking is now a recognized superpower. And I am grateful that I was able to welcome a new grandbaby into our world.

I put on my mask every day and take precautions with the knowledge that COVID-19 vaccines are reaching people.

For the first time in a long time, I’m actually not old-enough for something. Living in New York, it gives me great hope that frontline workers and people over the age of 60 are getting access to vaccines. I want the same for everyone everywhere.

Over the past year, we’ve all missed out on doing the things we love to do with others — eating, hugging and going to school and work. We have suffered great loss and experienced great fear.

We have a shared and lived experience.

It’s shown me that together we can end this pandemic and that only together can we transform a new era of equality, sustainability and hope.